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I want to reaffirm our commitment to fixed-term Parliaments. That means that we have to lay down in statute that it is for the House, not the Prime Minister, to dissolve Parliament. It should also be for the House
to decide the precise date of the general election, which should be in statute, and we should have only one process of calling an early general election. We must be clear that the Government need always retain the confidence of the House of Commons and that should be written in statute now.
For most of the 20th century, we have had very few hung Parliaments, but I suspect that there might well be more in future. We need to ensure that our provisions will stand the test of time rather than simply being drawn up to appease the coalition agreement.
Mr Shepherd: Mr Hoyle, I have a point of inquiry following your response to the Opposition's Front-Bench spokesman, which is about the stand part debate. As the amendments are theories in concatenation, it is difficult to address an amendment in isolation without reference to a wider context.
Mr Shepherd: Thank you, Mr Hoyle. I shall start with my first observation, which is that the test of each clause in both of the constitutional Bills is to ask in what way it enhances the role of the people in relation to Parliament. The answer, again, is that this does not. The measures are meant to be an internal reorganisation of the rules and regulations of the House of Commons effected through statute. We have had advice from the Clerk of the House that, if challenged, it will be open to judicial interest and the views of the courts. Historically, this matter has always been determined within these precincts and so the question of what we call parliamentary privilege is particularly germane to the Bill. I am very concerned about that. I make the perhaps minor observation that in a struggle between a new Government without a mandate and the House of Commons authorities, who are appointed by the House, I would back the advice of the House rather than that of the politically motivated and interested Government of the day. I do not dismiss the Clerk's memorandum or accept the response to it, which is effectively like that television sketch "Computer says no." That is an extraordinary and very undignified response to the Clerk's advice on something that is of the greatest importance to Members of the House, and through them, citizens' rights, activities and freedoms.
My next point concerns the accumulation in clause 2 and the proposed amendments to it of purposes, or distinctions between ways of dissolving Parliament. These measures have shifted my position from benign acceptance of the concept of a fixed Parliament to one of questioning whether there was not greater wisdom in the proceedings and processes that we had before. These measures worry me enormously. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) generously moved an amendment in which she has no confidence in order to test a proposition, and she did test it-to destruction. On examination, the amendment is too threadbare and offends the very conscience of why we are here. It suggests that some Members' views on whether a Parliament should stand or not should be disregarded because they do not have a party leader
who represents a certain number of votes. I do not know how such an amendment got through the Select Committee but I think it was to form the basis of some sort of standing order that could be cooked up to meet the point about judicial inquiry into the purposes or nature of the Bill.
Let me make another point about motions for an early election or of no confidence. We have tickled, argued and considered across the Chamber the way in which Mr Callaghan accepted that there had to be a general election, but that was nearly at the end of a five-year Parliament. There was very little scope beyond going the few months left, but he stood up immediately and said, "There will have to be a general election." I remember the perfervid moments of the Maastricht debates and the subsequent consequences of a Government who had a very small majority wanting to increase the rate of VAT on domestic fuel. The motion was to be vehemently opposed by people such as myself, who had lost the Whip, but not just because of that-it was an opposed measure. It could not have fallen but for the support of Conservative Members who took a broader view on it, and it did fall.
The argument that was put by the bastion of the 1922 Committee and the Whips, of course, for they have an argument for all seasons, was that if it fell, the Government would fall, and that the solemnest duty of any Conservative Member was to support the measure because the confidence of the House stood in the Budget. I shall always have a soft spot for the Justice Secretary-then the Chancellor-because when he lost the vote, he said, with that famous giggle, "Oh, we'll have to have a corrigendum Budget." We duly had one on the following Thursday. I am really talking about the pressure that was put on Back Benchers, because we were told that the Government would fall.
If I had stood in front of my constituents at the general election and said, "I've got two little measures. The short title of one of them is the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, but the long title seems to contradict that concept," they would have been bemused. If I had then started talking to them about the nature of confidence votes and motions for an early election, they would have been struggling. We were entering an election and they knew what it was about; there was a crisis. There was a huge public deficit and anxiety about jobs, yet here was Shepherd of Aldridge-Brownhills troubling them with the notion that
"each member of the House of Commons who at the time of the motion being made is the registered leader of a registered party"
The measure has no mandate. I have opposed other constitutional measures, but however wrong I thought the balance of the argument was for the detail of the Scotland Bill proposed by Labour, no one could say that there had not been a national convention on it. There was no political party in Scotland that had not long resourced such a measure. I recall John Smith's role and that of a whole series of people. They were alert and alive to the issue. No one could claim that there was no mandate for the reforms and changes that took place under the sovereignty of this Parliament to create a Scottish legislative structure and to pass powers to Scotland. The constitutional developments in Wales and Northern Ireland were similar.
Those measures could claim a mandate. The 19th century is often cited, but these are long struggles. I was a little riled by the Labour spokesman because he referred to the 18th century. It is proclaimed that the glory of the House is reflected in our coming to the democratic age-it is rather like dividing up what happened in a great empire-but the democratic age is fairly fresh and young and new. It did not really start until the 1860s. That was when political parties were formed and there was a more regimented approach to the management of the House-not easy to do. There was a glorious extract from the London Illustrated News next to the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash)-I now know where Pericles found the stones to get over his lack of confidence. The extract was from the Queen's Speech-then Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The burden of it was to say, "This parliamentary Session"-well, this particular parliamentary Session will last for ever, but apart from that-"Her Majesty's Government will concentrate on foreign affairs. It will leave domestic legislation to the House." Just like that. That is a world away from where we are now-where the Government have to fiddle and twiddle, and do everything at the behest of a very informed-
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) also gave us a history lesson and had to be reminded to come back to the amendment. I am sure that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) would prefer to stick to the amendment. I realise that we can broaden things out, but we are going a little bit too far from the measure.
Mr Shepherd: Of course, I joyously do that. Implicit in every line of the measure is the management of the House. That is the only reason why I diverted slightly to recall the London Illustrated News.
Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is making another fine speech, which I am always glad to hear. He spoke about the mandate for constitutional change and the previous mandates that previous changes have enjoyed. Does he agree that it is important to have a mandate not only to introduce a change in the constitution such as that proposed, but to entrench it? Without such a mandate, is there not a danger that future Governments may feel that they have the authority to introduce such constitutional changes to their own benefit, much as the present Government are seeking to bring in a constitutional change through the measures in the Bill for their own benefit?
The measure is not appropriate for a serious democracy. Clause 2, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone said, is an endeavour to entrench. It is as simple as that. We cannot ignore a wider picture of what is going on. At this moment, loyal and good dinner guests of those who run my party are marching into the Lords to take their place. Their doing so means that when the Bill comes to be voted on-remember, the other House that has to deal with that is the Lords-the numbers able to vote on it in the Lords in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat interest will have increased exponentially.
Overall, the Bill-clause 2, the other clauses, the Speaker's certificate, the idea of a registered leader of a registered party and so on-is, if not humbug, then designed to defeat the very purposes that most of us in the House want: an open, democratic House. I know that this is difficult in politics, but my Conservative colleagues should listen, understand and think about the 200 very new Members in the House who are going to change a constitution without any reference point other than party loyalty. Party loyalty to what? No mandate? They are going to march blindly through the Lobby at the behest of the concept of party, when in a coalition that is a very different matter.
Mark Durkan: Many valid arguments have been made about this group of amendments by a number of right hon. and hon. Members. I have total sympathy with the cynicism that has been expressed about some of the devices in the Bill and the motives for them.
However, I believe totally in the idea of a fixed-term Parliament and have supported amendments that clearly stated "fixed term", although I believe that the term should be four years, rather than five. I have to ask myself, as all of us as legislators and members of the Committee must ask ourselves, if we do not like the present provisions, what is our alternative that would mean that we have credibly passed a Bill for fixed-term Parliaments? That is where I part company and cease to be persuaded by some of the arguments that I hear in respect of some of the amendments.
With reference to cynicism about the motives, a number of hon. Members have articulated the basic nature of the Bill. It is the means by which the two coalition parties have created a statutory harness to keep them together for this Parliament. It is, in essence, a fixed this-Parliament Bill, rather than a Fixed-term Parliament Bill. It is designed to solve the conundrum of either party collapsing the coalition. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is for fixing future elections. This Bill is about fixing this Parliament.
If I want the Bill to be a Fixed-term Parliament Bill, I have to be judicious about its content and any amendments that I might support. That is why I have some questions about some of the amendments that have been so articulately presented today.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) presented amendment 33 with a white flag and in a very novel way, which just goes to show that it is entirely possible for people to present themselves in all sorts of ways in the House. People say that a Government would not use or exploit in any way a no confidence motion against themselves, but any available device will be used in any particular circumstances. That is the nature of politics.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) spoke to amendment 21 and made a strong case for an "immediate" as opposed to an "early" general election. The only problem is that if "immediate" can mean only six weeks, as he said to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), what happens if, for example, we are close to Christmas-perhaps the middle of November-notwithstanding that allowances will be made for holidays? If we are truly to take
account of media coverage and other activities during that time, is it credible to confine ourselves to six weeks and six weeks only? Clause 2 as it stands allows for consensus in the House on the need to bring forward considerably the due date for an election, and people might do so conscious of current and pending events.
Another hon. Member mentioned the situation in Dublin at the minute, and many people would say that, although confirmation of an early election there has helped to clear the political air, going for an immediate election might cause more market turmoil not just for Ireland, but for others. There are times when we need to leave ourselves and this House the room to make a distinction between "early" and "immediate".
Mr Cash: I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman is pretty close to and talks frequently with those in southern Ireland and in the Dail, but I doubt whether the Dail or the people of Ireland would be particularly enthusiastic at this moment, when the Government are in coalition with the Greens, to have such a provision imposed upon them. I suspect that, if the idea were suggested, it would lead to serious disturbances in Ireland, and I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree.
Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman raises some wider questions, and you, Mr Hoyle, have said that the next group of amendments deals with confidence, but this debate has strayed well on to that ground and conflated the two issues of whether the House, by a weighted majority, calls for an early election or whether it passes a motion of no confidence in the Government.
In 1994, the Government changed in the Dail. The Labour party left its coalition with Fianna Fail, supported a motion of no confidence in the then Taoiseach and reappeared in a new coalition with Fine Gael and the then Democratic Left. In that situation, as in the Bill before us, provision has been made for a Government to change-a new Government to be constituted-in the lifetime of a Parliament, and in 1994 the people of Ireland settled quite happily for that.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend does not like my "immediate" provision, but I shall suggest one reason why he is wrong. The Bill, if unamended, means that Her Majesty by royal proclamation under the Great Seal, after conferring presumably with the Privy Council, determines the date of the general election, but that in essence is down to the Prime Minister. Surely, if the whole point is to take that power away from the Crown and to place it here in Parliament, there should be provision for an "immediate" general election.
Mark Durkan: I take the hon. Gentleman's point about trying to remove powers from the Prime Minister, but I am not sure that all the amendments that he supports would do that. I think that, in a fairly effective way, the powers would remain pretty heavily with the Executive.
I am not fully persuaded of the case for the amendment. I fully accept the argument that it would bring some clarity and put some control in the hands of the House. However, there could well be good, logical reasons for having an election that occurred to people at the time, possibly well in advance of a due election date. There
could be political difficulties in one of the devolved regions that are leading to elections there, or particular market issues, or all sorts of crises in Europe-although I do not want to excite the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) with that prospect. A variety of reasons could create a coincidence of interest across a number of parties from a number of places to say, "We'll have an early election", and a date could be set without necessarily having to do it in crisis mode for six weeks hence.
The beauty of a fixed-term Parliament is meant to be that, because we all know the dates, we do not create uncertainty and have political rushes and get all sorts of brinkmanship games being played. However, if this House is to have the power to dissolve early, it can have that power but not necessarily the power to do it immediately. It can have the power to give due notice that the date is being brought forward but without waiting until just six weeks beforehand. If there is merit in a fixed-term Parliament, there is also merit in leaving this House the opportunity to bring forward a date other than just by a vote six weeks beforehand, because that would create surprise and difficulties and a sense of crisis. I fully accept that the terms of the clause are not fully adequate: the hon. Member for Rhondda is absolutely right about that. We do not have a complete or adequate provision on fixed-term arrangements.
Amendment 4 would remove the requirement for a two-thirds majority. I accept the argument made by many hon. Members that that is a very high threshold. I do not agree that it should be two thirds of all Members regardless of whether they are voting. If we are going to set any majority, or any weighted majority, it should comprise those who are present and voting, so I do not accept the Bill as it stands. However, I cannot just simply go along with the argument that says that there should not be any sort of weighted majority, because then we are not sure what proof we are providing against anybody abusing the numbers in this House to dissolve Parliament early. Other hon. Members have referred to the powers of the Prime Minister and the powers that are exercised through party machinery-the Whips, and so on. Leaving the calling of an early election to a simple majority that can be activated to call an election within six weeks means that huge power remains in the hands of the Prime Minister.
Mr George Howarth: Does my hon. Friend accept that being a Member of this place carries with it not only a lot of privileges but a lot of responsibilities, and that if we can achieve a simple majority, that would mean that more than half the Members of the House of Commons-people who have been sent here to exercise their judgment-had reached the conclusion that the time was right for a general election? I cannot for the life of me see why he finds that a difficult concept.
Mark Durkan: I believe in the idea of a fixed-term Parliament. I am therefore not comfortable with the idea that, yes, we have fixed-term Parliaments, but that at any time a simple majority can call an election for six weeks hence. That is what I am being asked to vote for as an alternative to what is provided for in the Bill. The Bill is not perfect, and it is badly motivated-I am as cynical as anybody else about that-but I have to be judicious and logical about what I would provide in its stead.
There is an old joke about somebody going into the two-hour dry cleaners and being told, "Come back on Tuesday." They say, "What do you mean, come back on Tuesday? It says 'Two-hour dry cleaners' outside." Then they are told, "That's just the name of the shop." That is exactly what we have with this Bill. People say that they want a fixed-term Parliament, but they also want a Bill that means that it will not, in effect, be fixed, because a simple vote at any time can dissolve it-and who is going to be moving those votes and pulling the strings of the Whips behind the scenes? We must remember that at any time, it will be possible for people to force an election by using a simple majority to force through a vote of no confidence in the Government. If there is not a vote of confidence in an alternative Government within 14 days, there will be an election. If people want the means to force an election, that route exists.
However, it is fair and reasonable also to give the House the power to change the date of an election for reasons that are not particularly partisan, that are mature, responsible and well thought through and that can be justified in light of existing circumstances and forthcoming events. The House should be able to say, "We have a fixed-term Parliament, but we are giving all sides ample notice that we will be moving the date." That would not be a matter of artifice or brinkmanship. If the House is being offered such a responsible, mature power that it could use with responsibility aforethought, I find it bizarre that Members are trying to twist and turn to find reasons not to take it.
I welcome the spirit of the amendments intended to allow parties other than the bigger ones to have a say. The small parties found themselves disqualified from even being able to nominate members of the Backbench Business Committee, for example, so I am conscious that some thresholds being used in the House are a problem. Some of our parties are no longer eligible to be on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, a creature that some of us helped to create in the first place, because of thresholds and the way in which numbers are played with. Therefore, I fully appreciate the spirit of the amendments but I have my doubts about their exact nature and how practical they are.
We need to be careful about the Bill and the amendments to it. We want to ensure that fixed-term Parliaments are in place and that it is not so easy for parties to break whatever convenient glass is to hand in case of emergency. I am persuaded that there is a need for a weighted majority provision, and for a vote that is different in character from confidence votes, which are not threatened by the Bill. If anything, the Bill provides for a situation similar to the one in Ireland in 1994, so I have no argument with it on that score. I do question the terms on which the threshold will operate, and when I question the effectiveness of some of the amendments, I do not in any way give up my cynicism about the nature and purpose of parts of the Bill and its twin, which has now gone to the other House.
I am against the Bill because of the lack of flexibility in it. From what the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has just been telling us, I think he agrees that if we have a fixed-term Parliament, a lack of flexibility is inevitable. He said that in the current constitutional and financial crisis in Ireland it is reasonable
that its Parliament should be able to call what he described as an early general election rather than an immediate one.
However, the consequence of the Bill will be that if we had a constitutional and financial crisis in this country similar to the one besetting the Irish people-God forbid that that should happen-the hon. Gentleman or I might ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether he intended to call an early general election so that the people could have their say. Under the terms of the Bill, the Prime Minister would turn around and say to me or the hon. Gentleman, "I am sorry, but I don't have the power to call a general election now. The only way I can engineer one is for you to put down a motion of no confidence in me, with the humiliation that it would involve, or for me to try to get a two-thirds majority in the House to facilitate it." The Prime Minister would lose the right to call an election. The Minister seems to think that is a good idea, but I do not. I trust the Prime Minister's judgment on such issues, and I think we should trust the people and let them decide.
When our good friend Edward Heath was Prime Minister, he decided to call an early general election to deal with the miners' strike. The people reached their verdict. Basically, they said, "We think that you have proved yourself unworthy to remain in office." The fact that a Prime Minister calls an early general election does not necessarily mean that they are going to win it. Whether they win or not is a matter for the people.
If there was a financial or constitutional crisis, such as the one in Dublin, a reasonable Prime Minister-I should like to think of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as a reasonable man-would say, "In the light of what has happened, we should call a general election. We should call it now. We should not have to have a contrived vote in the House of Commons. I wish to go to the Queen and ask her to exercise her prerogative to call an immediate general election."
Mark Durkan: In Dublin, a budget needs to be passed and then people can make a legitimate judgment. The imperative is to get a budget passed to create some economic and financial stability to boost confidence in the wider markets-not just for the Irish economy but for other economies both inside and outside the eurozone that will be under pressure. There will be an election in late January and that is known, but at least the Dail has the opportunity to pass a budget.
Mr Chope: I will not get involved in the detail of what is happening in Ireland at the moment. If a similar situation were to happen in this country, people might well turn to their Members of Parliament and say, "Why should we trust this Government to pass another Budget when it has made such a Horlicks of the current arrangements? Why don't we elect a new Parliament and a new Government to deal with the crisis?"
Mr Harper: At first, my hon. Friend said that this Bill would not provide any flexibility. Then he set out two ways in which we could have an early election. Our proposition is that it would be up to this House rather the Prime Minister to call an early election. The Prime Minister could come to this House, put down a motion and then Members could decide whether they wanted an early election to deal with the financial crisis. To give the power to this House and not leave it with the Prime Minister is an improvement.
Mr Chope: Where we all part company with my hon. Friend is on the issue of whether a 50% plus one majority should suffice. That is where the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) comes in. In the hypothetical situation that we describe, a majority of this House may decide that there should be a general election, and surely that is reasonable. Why should we have to have the constraints of a two-thirds majority, which is a contrivance in itself?
I had the privilege of introducing the first Adjournment debate in this Parliament when we discussed the issue of the 55%. I like to think that it was largely because of the cross-party ridicule of the 55% arrangements in the coalition agreement that the Government decided to think again. They did think again, but they reached the wrong conclusion. They should have gone back to saying, "Let's have a bare majority" rather than going to the artificial two-thirds majority. They tried to pray in aid, falsely, the Scottish precedent, which was discredited during that first Adjournment debate and on a number of other occasions as not being in line with our situation. In Scotland, there was full public consultation on the new Parliament and the way in which it could be dissolved early, short of the expiry of the fixed term. After that discussion, the Scotland Act 1998 was brought in with the arrangements set out in it.
In the United Kingdom, a general election took place. I and others were elected on the Conservative manifesto. We then found that we did not have an overall majority, so we were forced to go into a coalition Government-at least that was the decision that was taken. We are now told that only a two-thirds majority can bring this Parliament to an early end, short of a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. I have all sorts of objections to that proposal, not least that it is effectively retrospective legislation. If this House is to legislate to fix the lengths of Parliament, it should legislate for the lengths of future Parliaments, not the current one. I object to the proposal, and I hope that it is taken up in the other place.
I also reject the idea of the artificial two-thirds threshold, which has not been discussed anywhere. When my hon. Friends consider whether to join my hon. Friend the Member for Stone in the Division Lobby on amendment 4, they should bear in mind not only that the two-thirds threshold was not in the Conservative manifesto, but that it was not even in the coalition agreement. They should be free to say to their Whips, "I said I'd go along with the coalition agreement, albeit reluctantly, but I am certainly not signing up to amendments to the coalition agreement that the Government make on a whim and expect me to support automatically. I'm going to look at each issue on its merits, and I see no merit whatever in the two-thirds majority."
In conclusion, the excellent speech by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was well worth listening to. He speculated about the motive and urgency of the Government's proposal. We know what the urgency is: the Government are split completely over the AV referendum. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives-the majority party-both want to be sure that the other does not pull the rug from under the coalition Government after that referendum. It is quite possible in my submission that the Conservatives will lose, although I hope not, but who knows what will happen in that game of Russian roulette?
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Such an experienced Member will know that the referendum is not quite part of this group of amendments. I am sure that he would like to get back to the amendment.
Mr Chope: Absolutely, Mr Hoyle. I am sorry, but the right hon. Member for Blackburn, who is a former Home Secretary and holder of many other important national offices, drew me down that road of speculation.
To sum up, the Government have a motive to cover either outcome of the AV referendum. It suits both parties in the coalition to prevent an early general election, which is why they want a fixed-term Parliament-they want to assure themselves of a longer period in office. I say only this: good luck to them, but they should not expect me to vote for the Bill tonight.
Tristram Hunt: I wish to speak to amendments 33 and 34. Even though I, too, am a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I did not put my name to them. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) suggested, they allow us to pursue the idea of exclusive cognisance, and of this place having control of its powers rather than being opened up to external powers, particularly the possibility of the courts intervening in the parliamentary process.
"impinge upon Parliamentary privilege and...may bring the Courts and Parliament into conflict",
and yet the Government seem unwilling to heed any such advice. When the Clerk of House appeared before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, with his usual subtlety and modesty, and we tried to press him on whether he had been consulted on the developments behind the Bill, he rather averred in his answer. The Government consider that
"this Bill would cause no such rebalancing and that the Bill will not in any way open up parliamentary proceedings to the jurisdiction of the courts."
"natural consequence of legislating at the beginning of the first term".
I would like briefly to point to two areas where there are potential openings for judicial intervention in the running of this place. I do not wish to speak to the Speaker's certificates now, because we will return to the specifics of that, but amendment 33 opens up the issue as a principle, because in addition to fixed electoral dates, the Bill empowers the Speaker to produce a certificate for an early general election, which would occur if the House had passed a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government and, after 14 days, there had been no further motion expressing confidence. The
Government are leaving it up to the Speaker to decide whether such events have occurred, but the problem is that the judgment that the Speaker makes will now be placed in statute, as a principle, but it is not an easy decision for the Speaker to make. He or she would have to adjudicate on what constitutes a confidence motion, the selection of amendments to the motion and the consequence of their being carried, all with an eye to major political ramifications. Crucially, because the certificate would be laid out in statute law, any disputes about whether the Speaker had been right to issue the certificate would have to be settled in the courts. The Speaker's certificate becomes justiciable and would therefore be declared invalid if the correct procedures had not been followed.
As you know, Mr Hoyle, lawyers can interpret their way around provisions in any way they like, and particularly those stating that the Speaker's decision is final. There is a celebrated case of a compensation scheme after the Suez crisis, with its legislative provision that
"the determinations of the compensation body shall be final"-
not according to the court, which ruled that where the body had made a decision on compensation that was wrong, it was not a "determination" but only a "purported determination", and therefore the courts could still review it. So if the wrong procedures were followed, any certificate would not be a "certificate of Dissolution" properly so-called, only a "purported certificate", and would therefore not be final but would potentially be amenable to judicial review. The Government seem intent on ignoring that possibility and the numerous potential openings for legal dispute.
I hate to refer to your position in depth, Mr Hoyle, but another example is the position and role of the Deputy Speakers, as laid out in subsection (4). Were the Deputy Speakers to dissent from the Speaker's view of the no confidence motion, there would be strong grounds for questioning the basis on which the Dissolution was based. The current provision is that the Speaker must consult the Deputy Speakers "so far as practicable". I am sure that that would be no problem, but the notion of what is or is not practicable in the case of dissent between the Deputy Speakers would also need to be settled in a court of law. As the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and many others have pointed out, another issue would be whether all Members of the House of Commons had been present at the vote. However, no matter what the reason given, in such politically charged circumstances as those that would surround a vote of no confidence, parties are likely to seek means of challenging the Dissolution. We have also had reference to what constitutes a motion of no confidence. Is it losing a Budget or a specific motion?
Amendments 33 and 34 and others hint at the expansion of judicial review and the danger it poses to this place and to the democratic process and the calling of elections. Judicial review has hugely increased the role of the courts, which now regularly pass judgments on questions that were previously non-justiciable. I suggest that it is dangerous for the Government to assert that when the Bill becomes law it could not possibly be affected by judicial review because the judges would not dare to intervene in the matters of this House. The fact of the matter is that this is uncharted territory and they cannot know for sure until it has indeed been judicially reviewed.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an extremely important and persuasive case. Is not all the evidence that judicial review of administrative action is increasing? For example, very recently, the Digital Economy Act 2010 was opened up by the courts for judicial review. It is less controversial than this, but it inevitably suggests that there will be more review in future.
Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend is right, and I shall come in a moment to the Hunting Act 2004, which is another piece of legislation that was open to judicial review. In the courts at the moment, there is the extraordinary situation of an election court judging my-I not sure of the correct parliamentary terminology-previous hon. Friend the Member for Oldham-
"proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court",
"no reason why the courts would not continue to defer to them".
The comity between Parliament and the courts has relied on the fact that the internal proceedings were entirely matters for the House's jurisdiction. Its procedures arising from Standing Orders or resolutions cannot be legally challenged, but statute law can. That is the extraordinary development in the Bill.
Mr Cash: The hon. Gentleman is dealing with amendments to come and amendment 6. I take his point, but there is a huge body of law, and statements are being made by members of the Supreme Court that are causing great concern and are being considered by my European Scrutiny Committee's inquiry into parliamentary sovereignty in the context of law making in this House.
Tristram Hunt: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman, and I will come to the Supreme Court in a moment. I do not want to interfere with his amendments on the Speaker's certificate, which are absolutely correct. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) referred to the Digital Economy Act 2010, and the Hunting Act 2004 was also reviewed in court. Yes, the court ruled that it could not interfere with the Act, but it had to go to the Law Lords for that supposedly self-evident truth to be confirmed. Even there, the judgment was hardly a ringing endorsement of parliamentary sovereignty, which is what amendment 33 seeks to retain.
Tristram Hunt: The hon. Gentleman is of course correct. There will be extra layers and extra opportunities for lawyers to intervene. It was no wonder that Lord Steyn commented in the light of the Hunting Act 2004 that it
"is not unthinkable that circumstances could arise where the courts may have to qualify a principle established on a different hypothesis of constitutionalism".
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman talking about a legal challenge to the validity of an Act or, as in the example that he has just given, the validity of the use of the Parliament Act in ensuring that an Act reaches the statute book?
Tristram Hunt: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and his knowledge of the Hunting Act is second to none. I am hinting at the adventurism of justices in critiquing and opening up to judicial review not only the Parliament Act but the proceedings of this place. The fear is that putting these measures into statute will open up the calling of elections from this place. That is what amendment 33 seeks to address.
"shall not be questioned in any court of law"
"shall be conclusive for all purposes".
When the courts come to interpret these questions, they will say, " Well, that's what it says in the Parliament Act." So if the words were left out, there may have been an intention to include the courts of law in this instance. That is why my amendment 6 makes it absolutely clear that there shall be no presentation of such a certificate to the courts, let alone any possibility of their adjudicating on such matters.
The Chairman: Order. We are in danger of straying into amendment 6, and I would like hon. Members to come back. I am sure that that is what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) was about to do.
Reference has been made to the new Supreme Court on the other side of Parliament square, which gives the capacity for amendments relating to the self-governing of this place, such as amendment 33, to be overturned by the actions of judges. The Clerk of the House has further warned us of the not infrequent need in recent years for interventions by the Speaker of the House of Commons to protect parliamentary privilege in the courts. As the hon. Member for Stone knows far better than we do, these matters can go from here across Parliament square and even to Europe.
All we want from the Minister is some clarity on this issue, and evidence of some slightly more rigorous thinking than the rushed elements that we have had so far. Rather than being slightly dismissive of the fears expressed by the Clerk of the House, will he provide us with some certainty and a clear answer to the question on statutory instruments and the certificate?
Mr Harper: There are several other groups of amendments, and we can expand on these matters further in due course. I shall go only as far as I need to in discussing this group, rather than trying to accelerate the debate. I want to deal briefly with the timetable. I do not think that the Bill has been rushed in any way. It was published in July, it had its Second Reading in September, and the first day of its Committee stage did not start until November. We have another day in Committee today, and the House passed a programme motion earlier that gives us an extra day in Committee on Thursday. I do not think that we are rushing ahead with this. No knives were included in the programme motion, and we are taking the debate at the proper pace that the Committee requires.
Mr George Howarth: I accept what the Minister says about the timetable for the Committee stage on the Floor of the House. A bigger issue, however, is that there was no time for proper pre-legislative scrutiny before the Bill was published and debated. Such scrutiny would have made many of these issues less contentious, or at least it would have had the potential to do so.
Mr Harper: I do not pretend that we published a draft Bill. We did not, but we have not rushed ahead. We published the Bill in July and it is now November and we are on our second day of Committee. That is hardly rushing through at a tremendous pace. We have not overly programmed either; we have had no knives and only today we have added extra time for the Bill. I do not accept at all that we have been rushing on.
Chris Bryant: I would not want the Minister inadvertently to mislead the Committee. He said that extra time has been provided, but he has not allowed any extra time; he has merely allowed the injury time for the three statements that interfered with the debate. [Interruption.] If the Deputy Leader of the House wants to make a speech, I am sure he will be able to catch your eye, Mr Hoyle. [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend moved amendment 33, although many members of the Select Committee pretended that they wanted nothing to do with it; to be fair, so did my hon. Friend. She explained why the amendment was tabled-to enable this Committee to debate and test the concerns raised by the Clerk. I shall touch on them
briefly. I will not overdo them, as we may have an opportunity to debate them further in a later group of amendments on the Speaker's certificate. However, I shall deal with the amendment. I know my hon. Friend said that she does not want to press it to a Division, but it is the lead amendment.
The amendment would remove two central provisions-the two mechanisms that provide for an early general election to take place: the vote through which the House can choose to have an early election and the mechanism for having one following the loss of a vote of confidence. Instead, the amendment provides that the early election could take place only on the House's address to the monarch, which can be made only
"by the Prime Minister acting with the agreement of...the Leader of the Opposition; and...the...leader of a registered party that received more than 20 per cent. of the total votes cast at the previous...general election."
I have a number of serious issues with the amendment. First, it would prevent the Prime Minister from calling a general election only if he did so for political advantage. It ignores and does not address the circumstances where there is a loss of confidence. It also focuses greatly on Front Benchers, as our debate has made clear. I exempt my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest from this criticism, as she said she did not agree with the amendment, but given their views about the role of Front Benchers, I am surprised that the other signatories to the amendment thought that that was a good idea. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is not in his place, but I do not think he would mind my saying that he is somewhat sceptical about the power of Front Benchers and the usual channels. I am surprised that he supported an amendment that suggests they should have a lot of power. As the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) pointed out, not every registered leader of a party is necessarily a Member of this House.
The amendment also fails to deal with what would happen to a party such as the Liberal Democrats, our coalition partners, part-way through a Parliament. How would we take account of the vote it had received at the previous general election? Indeed, the 20% threshold would leave Northern Ireland parties out of the picture completely. If this measure had been in place following the 1992, 1997 and 2001 elections, only two people would have been required to table the motion-the leader of the Labour party and the leader of the Conservative party. In view of what has been said about the need to remove the power of the Executive and Front Benchers, that does not seem a sensible step forward.
It would thus be fair to say that amendment 33 is not well drafted. From what I heard, it does not sound as if it had enormous support across the Committee, including even from my hon. Friend. Despite the fact that she did not agree with the amendment, she moved it in a way that was very becoming to her parliamentary experience and the Committee enjoyed the opportunity with which it was presented.
Sir Peter Soulsby: With the amendment's proposers having been at the receiving end of the Minister's criticism, I hope he will acknowledge that it was tabled by members of the Select Committee to enable the matter properly to be debated, particularly in the light of our concern about the lack of proper time being accorded to pre-legislative scrutiny. We wanted to ensure that this Committee could debate the matter on the Floor of the House at this Committee stage.
I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest that there is no danger of my accepting her amendment, and that as there is not to be a Division-at least if we have anything to do with it-she will not be forced to vote against it.
Amendment 21, tabled by Opposition Members, simply changes the word "early" in clause 2 to "immediate". I have two comments to make. First, under our own arrangements-this too emerged earlier in the debate-we do not have immediate general elections anyway. There is always a wash-up period. Before the 1979 election-which seems to have prompted the most discussion-25 Bills were passed during the wash-up period, including a number that completed all their stages during that period. Some of those Bills were very valuable. I spotted among them the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979, which is still helping people today.
Secondly, all that the amendment does is change the language in the clause. It does not, in itself, have any effect. I know that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned a later amendment that did introduce a change, but this amendment would not bring an election further forward.
Chris Bryant: The Minister is right: we are not trying to make an enormous point. I simply wanted to tease out of the Government precisely what they understand by a motion calling for an early general election. I wanted to know, for instance, whether-as suggested by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)-he believed that it would be possible to call such an election, and that the Speaker would be able to sign a certificate saying that one had been called, when the House had, say on Wednesday next week, passed a motion calling for a general election in nine months' time.
Mr Harper: I do not think that that is drawn out by the amendment, but I agree with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that some flexibility is required. The Speaker will certify that a motion has been passed, but we do not know what all the circumstances will be. The hon. Gentleman gave a good example when he cited the way in which Ireland has arranged for procedures to take place to provide some certainty. I do not think that we want to set all the rules in stone. We want to allow the Speaker to be clear with the House-I am sure that he would be clear with the House before it debated the motion-about whether he is able to certify that the motion would trigger an early general election. It is better to leave such matters to the judgment of the Speaker. I will come to the point about the Clerk's concern about justiciability, but I do not think that being too specific would be helpful.
Chris Bryant: What the Minister has said makes me rather more worried, and gives me much greater cause for concern than other elements of the clause. The danger is that if we are not clear enough about the precise moment when a Speaker is required by the House to act, we will be asking the Speaker to break his or her impartiality at a moment that may be very, very politically sensitive.
Mr Harper: I do not agree. I think that the Speaker would ensure that the House was clear both about a motion that would trigger an early general election and about a motion of confidence, and about what he would certify, before the debate. I do not think it would be sensible for the House to have a debate when it was not clear about those matters.
We discussed the 1979 debate earlier. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) tried to suggest that Members had voted on that motion for other reasons, but the motion was very clear in asking whether the House had confidence in the Government, and I suggested that Members could not have been in any doubt about what they were voting for. I think that the Speaker would always want to ensure that the House understood what it was voting for, and the effect of its vote.
Chris Bryant: That is even more worrying. The Minister is now saying that the Speaker would decide whether a motion before the House was a motion of confidence in Her Majesty's Government, which is profoundly worrying. Motions on the Adjournment, motions on all sorts of legislation and motions of censure of individual members of the Government have been determined to be such by the House. If it were for the Speaker to make such a determination, we would have shot the Speaker's impartiality to pieces.
Mr Harper: No, I do not think so at all. At present, whether a motion is a motion of confidence is determined by the Prime Minister; it is determined by how they behave as a result of the vote. [Interruption.] No, it is.
Earlier in the debate, we had a conversation about motions that were not specifically in these terms, and several Members on the Government Benches referred to certain votes. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) referred to some votes on Europe and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) talked about a vote on VAT on fuel. How the Government behaved after the debates on those motions was determined by Ministers, not the House.
Mr Harper: Thank you, Mr Hoyle. As always, I will do as you instruct. I will now take the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, so long as he does not try to tempt me away from the instruction from the Chair.
Amendment 4 stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and was also signed by Opposition Members. Effectively, it drives a coach and horses through these entire provisions; the hon. Member for Foyle picked that point up very well. It is because we want to provide for fixed-term Parliaments that the Bill specifies that an early general election can be triggered only if there is a majority of at least two thirds. If it were possible to have an early general election by way of a motion that gains a simple majority, we all know that in most circumstances that would mean that we have given the power back to the Prime Minister. If he felt an early general election was in the interests of the governing party and that view was shared by the governing party, the motion would be passed and we would have a general election, and we would therefore not have fixed-term Parliaments.
I am not surprised that my hon. Friend has tabled this amendment as it is clear from his speech that he does not like the concept of fixed-term Parliaments at all, and that instead he is happy with our current arrangements, which he is entitled to be. However, given that the Opposition have said they are broadly in favour of fixed-term Parliaments-albeit for four years, not five-I cannot understand why they have supported the amendment because, as I have said, it drives a coach and horses through the entire proposition.
Mr Harper: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's proposition about the weighting of votes. We have set out a straightforward position. We decided on two thirds partly because it is the majority required in the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 1998, and partly because under the requirement for a majority of such a size no Government since the second world war would have been able to trigger an early election on their own. Effectively, the requirement for a majority of two thirds means that there would have to be some cross-party support and a general mood in the House that there should be an early election.
There was talk about the fact that the coalition agreement refers to 55%, and I acknowledge that. The coalition agreement was put together quite quickly however, and we have since reflected on this question. We wanted to be clear that the Government-both parties together-were going to put aside the prospect of being able to trigger an early general election and that, instead, that could happen only if there was a shared view across the House. The reason we alighted on two thirds was that it was the number used in the Scotland Act 1998, which set up the Scottish Parliament.
Graham Stringer: I understand the objectives. I am cynical about them and the motives behind them, but the numerical fact is that passing this motion will require the support of 400-odd Members, depending on the size of the Commons at that particular time-perhaps the figure will be 420-whereas stopping it will require only half that number. Therefore, someone's vote against will carry twice the weight of someone's vote in favour. Can the Minister be clear, not on the objectives, but on why he wants to give some hon. Members more voting power than others?
Mr Harper: I just do not agree with the way in which the hon. Gentleman has characterised this. We have said that the support of a significant number of Members is required to have an early election. It is very simple for the House to make a decision. If a simple majority is required to have an early election, we do not have fixed-term Parliaments because if the governing party or parties have a majority in this House, they will simply be able to table a motion, their own side will support it and we will have an election whenever the Prime Minister chooses. If that is what the House wants, fine. However, the House has already decided when it gave this Bill its Second Reading that it wants fixed-term Parliaments, and it did so again when we debated clause 1 last week and decided on the date and the fact that we would have five-year Parliaments. Our proposition is that if we allow an early election on a simple majority, we drive a coach and horses through the Bill.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Just to be topical, what would happen in a situation such as exists in Ireland at the moment, where there is a weak Government, a coalition breaks up, there is a financial crisis and it is clearly essential that the Government renew themselves with an early general election? What would happen in such circumstances if the Bill goes through as drafted? Would we have the absurd situation that two thirds of Members would have to vote to kill off a Parliament that nobody wanted to survive any longer?
Mr Harper: There are two parts to clause 2. Importantly-some Members were getting this confused-a motion of no confidence in the Government can still be passed by a simple majority. So if a Government did not command the confidence of the House, the House could express that lack of confidence. I shall not go into that in detail, because we will deal with it when we discuss a later group of amendments-Mr Hoyle is clear about that-but the House can vote in support of a motion of no confidence and the Government will then have the period of examining whether another Government can be formed from within that Parliament.
As the hon. Member for Foyle said earlier, when I do not believe my hon. Friend was present, the Bill also provides the opportunity to renew the Parliament if there is a sense that events mean that it needs to be renewed-I believe that is the view in Ireland at the moment. If a simple majority has lost faith in the Government, a motion of no confidence can be passed. If there is a general sense that there should be an election, we have given the House that opportunity-a
power that it does not currently possess. I am surprised, as the hon. Gentleman said he was, that some Members of the House sound as though they do not want a power that is not possessed by the House and has previously been possessed only by the Prime Minister.
Chris Bryant: What happens if the Government table a motion calling for an early parliamentary general election-I presume only they will be able to do so-and it is carried by 330 votes, but not by the 434 votes necessary? Could the Speaker, or for that matter the Prime Minister, determine that to be a motion of no confidence in the Government?
The Chairman: Order. I am sorry, but I am making a ruling from the Chair. I feel that this is a debate that we are going to have and I am concerned that we are getting drawn into it now. The Minister may answer quickly, if he wishes, but I do not want to let this go any further after that.
Mr Harper: Mr Hoyle, you are pointing out that we can discuss this at length when we get on to a later group of amendments. My view on the hon. Gentleman's example is very clear: if the Prime Minister so wishes, he can cease being Prime Minister whenever he feels like it. The House could then see whether an alternative Government under a different leader could be formed- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Rhondda says not under this provision, but this provision is for an early election. The Prime Minister can cease being Prime Minister whenever the Prime Minister chooses and Her Majesty will then be able to send for an alternative person to form a new Government. That is not what the Bill is about. The Bill is about fixed-term Parliaments, not fixed-term Governments.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, in the sense that this is an Act of Parliament and can be repealed, but the difference is that it will then engage the other place, in which the Government do not have a majority-and in which we will still not have one when the new peers have been introduced. We think that putting the provision in legislation is preferable to putting it in Standing Orders because the Government then have to get the Bill through both Houses of Parliament, in one of which they do not have a majority- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) says that the Government will
have a majority, but no. Even when the new list of working peers has been created, the two governing parties together will not have a majority. There are Cross Benchers in the Upper House, which he keeps forgetting.
For those reasons, I think that amendment 4 is flawed. If it is pressed to a vote, I urge my hon. Friends to oppose it. The Government's position is very clear. We want fixed-term Parliaments but we want there to be two circumstances in which there can be an early general election: when there is a traditional motion of no confidence, in which a simple majority is enough to say that a Government have lost the confidence of the House; and when the House uses its new power to force an early election, which is decided by two thirds of the Members of the House. The same provision is in the Scotland Act 1998 for the Scottish Parliament. I should say that it is the same provision, because in Scotland it is two thirds of all Members, not just those voting. The hon. Member for Rhondda did not get that quite right.
Mrs Laing: It was the Select Committee's intention to give the House an opportunity to debate these important matters and that has certainly been a success. I am pleased to have given the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) his first opportunity to address the House from the Back Benches for more than 23 years. I am grateful to my colleagues on the Select Committee, the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby), for their support for-or rather opposition to-the amendment, which none of us wants to see become part of the Bill but which we are all grateful to have had the opportunity to debate this afternoon. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Temporary Chair (Mr David Amess): Before we come to the next group of amendments, I have the following announcement to make regarding deferred Divisions. On the question relating to local elections in Northern Ireland, the Ayes were 337 and the Noes were 217, so the Question was agreed to. On the question relating to Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the Ayes were 338 and the Noes were 216, so the Question was agreed to. On the question relating to health and safety and the EPR nuclear reactor, the Ayes were 520 and the Noes were 27, so the Question was agreed to. On the question relating to health and safety and the AP1000 nuclear reactor, the Ayes were 517 and the Noes were 26, so the Question was agreed to.
'(2A) In reckoning for the purposes of subsection 2(b), no account shall be taken of any time during which Parliament is prorogued or during which the House of Commons is adjourned for more than four days.'.
'(2B) Where the House of Commons passes a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government, the Prime Minister shall tender his resignation to Her Majesty within a period of seven days of the motion being passed.
(2C) On tendering his resignation under subsection (2B), it shall be a duty on the Prime Minister to advise Her Majesty to appoint as his successor the person who appears to him most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons.'.
Mr Cash: During the previous debate, we covered an enormous amount of the ground contained in this group of amendments, so purely to clarify the position I should say that, although the previous amendments dealt with early parliamentary elections when the motion might as well be a confidence motion but of course might not, this group relates to a motion of no confidence. I accept the Minister's point that such a motion would require a simple majority, and I do not need to say any more on that.
I have already explained the variety of confidence motions, but I am afraid I have the gravest disagreement with the Minister about his definition of a confidence motion. I am very concerned indeed, and for reasons that I shall go into when we reach the next amendments on the potential role of the judiciary. It is impossible for the Minister to explain what a vote of no confidence is, and he certainly has not done so today.
It is extremely difficult to define a vote of no confidence, because it covers a vote on an Adjournment, on the reduction of a Minister's salary, on Suez, on the defeat of the Callaghan Government-and Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister-by a majority of one, and many other situations. There is a raft of different definitions, and what troubles me is that right at the heart of the matter is one simple proposition, summarised by Leo Amery on 7 May 1940, when he got up during a very charged debate on the Norway issue and said to Neville Chamberlain:
"In the name of God, go."-[ Official Report, 7 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1150.]
Although the Government won that vote of confidence, because enough craven people were prepared to vote for them, Chamberlain knew the game was up. The confidence motion was therefore-even in that case-defeated, and he went. The definition of a confidence motion is therefore extremely uncertain. It boils down to the fact that there is such concern about, and lack of confidence in, the Government-let alone the Prime Minister-that he has to go and, therefore, the Government as well. The two things run together.
Mrs Laing: The issue was raised at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Portcullis House last week. Currently, there is something of a constitutional crisis in Canada over exactly the same questions: what is a vote of confidence, when is a vote a vote of confidence, how is it defined and who has the power to make that definition? Surely, it would be wrong if our Parliament got into the mess that Canada is in.
Mr Cash: As the former adviser to Quebec in the Canadian constitutional dispute of 1982, I am not unfamiliar with the problems that arise in the Canadian constitution. Of course, Canada has a Governor-General, and there is a completely different situation there. There was a similar situation in Australia some time ago involving Gough Whitlam.
I would strongly deny, however, that we should be guided by what goes on in other countries: the real issue is what we do in this House. We have an established position that is dependent on the views of the House. My strongest objection to the phrasing of the previous amendment was that it referred to the number of seats in the House rather than those voting in the House. There is a big difference. In Germany, the question of whether a Government might fall would depend on the number of persons present if, under its written constitution, two thirds vote in a particular division, whereas in the case of this coalition Government, it would be dependent on the number of seats. It is necessary to take into account the Deputy Speakers and the people who might be absent. In fact, the clause includes, in brackets, the words "including vacant seats", so the arithmetic is extraordinarily difficult. The real question is whether the Government have lost confidence.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Would not one solution be to stipulate that any motion of no confidence must specifically relate to this clause, so that there could be no doubt that the motion before the House was covered by the Bill as enacted?
"on a specified day the House passed a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government (as then constituted)".
I described in an earlier debate the shenanigans of the 14-day period after a day had ended without the House having passed any motion expressing confidence in any Government of Her Majesty. What happens next is that all these people get together in a huddle and then rush up and down Downing street and Whitehall going to see the Cabinet Secretary and receiving some instructions about what they should do, in his view, if they want a stable Government. The net result is that we have a completely chaotic situation driven by behind-the-scenes, unknown negotiations that are then announced-
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend remember-happy days-when we were Maastricht rebels? We defeated the Government on the paving motion, and they then brought in another motion that was related to a no confidence motion, and we were all brought to heel in that way. Although I would not want to encourage that sort of behaviour, at least it was clear, was it not? The Government were saying, "This is where we are-we stand here." At least that made for strong government.
Mr Cash: There is one simple reason why some of us voted for the confidence motion on Maastricht. I remember pointing to the late John Smith, who was then Leader of the Opposition, and saying, "There is only one reason why I am going to vote for the present Government on this occasion, and that is because you are more of a federalist than they are." That is why that vote went that way-it is as simple as that.
This is not only about the shenanigans with the Whips, the patronage, the promises, the chicanery behind closed doors, and all that, leading to yet another coalition agreement, no doubt based on different principles, in order to stay in power. The other aspect-we can get to it later, which is why I am about to bring my remarks to an end-is that it is dependent on the Speaker of the House of Commons issuing a certificate certifying the motion of no confidence. That is an extremely important matter, which we need to discuss properly after the debate on this group of amendments.
I think I have spoken quite enough for the time being, and I would be very glad to expedite matters by moving on as soon as possible to the next issue. I think we will have a very interesting and, if I may so, seminal debate on the role of the judiciary in relation to parliamentary sovereignty.
Chris Bryant: The last moments of the speech of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) sounded a bit like a trailer for the next debate. If he does not mind we will stick with this one for the moment, although he is absolutely right to say that the way in which all the different elements of the Bill tumble together in a concatenation will make for a fairly dangerous precedent if we are not given further clarification.
It is important that we establish some basic first principles on no confidence motions. First, the Government should at all times enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons. It is important to state that that should be a matter solely for the House of Commons, no matter whether we change the composition of the House of Lords in future, as I hope we do. I note that motions of no confidence have been tabled and debated in the House of Lords, but that is inappropriate. The elected House of Commons, the primary Chamber, should determine whether the Government enjoy the confidence of Parliament.
Secondly, it is important to say that just because the Government lose a vote, they do not necessarily have to fall. That is an important principle because I think that there are only two Prime Ministers since the second world war who have not lost votes at some point. Even Churchill lost one vote in his period as Prime Minister after the war. Attlee lost four, even when he had a majority, and Wilson lost 31, six in his first time as Prime Minister and 25 in his second. Callaghan lost 34, none of which did for him-well, obviously one did in the end. It is a sign of a healthy relationship between the Executive and Parliament if the legislature is able to defeat the Government on occasion on bits and pieces of legislation.
Obviously there comes a point at which a Government might not be able to continue, for instance because they have not been able to get their Budget through in any shape or form, or because they cannot take through some major piece of legislation. In practice, as the hon. Member for Stone mentioned, what has normally happened
is that the Government have brought forward legislation and then lost a vote on an amendment or some motion. Often, the Opposition have then tabled a motion of no confidence the next day.
The convention of the House-I note that it is only a convention-is that the Government automatically give precedence to a motion of no confidence, so that it can be debated immediately. It is obviously in the Government's interests to resolve the matter of whether the House has confidence in them. I merely note that now we are putting elements of the matter into statute rather than depending on convention and Standing Orders, there is no provision to ensure that a motion of no confidence is guaranteed precedence and can be debated swiftly, one would hope the next day.
Governments have lost large numbers of votes since the second world war and before, and that is important. Some of them have been finance votes, and it is perfectly satisfactory for some finance votes to be lost, for instance on stamp duty or the rate of income tax. On 16 July 1974, the Government lost a vote on a Liberal amendment to the Finance Bill. On 8 May 1978 the Conservatives moved that income tax be cut from 34% to 33%, which was carried against the Government's wishes. On 10 May that year another Conservative amendment to the Finance Bill was agreed to, and the Government lost another motion the next day in relation to sending the Finance Bill off to Committee.
I do not believe that such losses should of necessity mean that the Government should fall, or indeed that they have lost the confidence of the House in its totality. I also do not believe that a motion to censure an individual member of the Government should, of necessity, lead to the fall of the Government, a new general election or to inciting the provisions in the Bill. There have been occasions in the past, when, effectively, a motion to censure an individual member of the Government has been so considered. The last occasion when a Government who had a majority of seats in the House of Commons lost a motion of no confidence was in 1895. The motion was on reducing the salary of the Secretary of State for War, Mr Campbell-Bannerman, by £100 because he had not provided enough cordite to the troops. The motion was carried. Even though Campbell-Bannerman was probably the most popular Member of the Government at the time, he resigned and the Prime Minister decided that he would consider it to have been a motion of confidence, and the Government resigned. The incoming Conservative Government decided to seek a Dissolution and hold an election and the Conservatives came to power.
Mrs Laing: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that there are rules and conventions about when a motion before this House is a confidence motion and when it is not? Twenty years ago this week, I recall the then Prime Minister, now Baroness Thatcher, saying that she was going to stand down as Prime Minister. The Opposition then tabled a motion of no confidence in the Government, which was quite rightly debated as such on the Floor of the House because we were at a point of crisis. The Government, headed as it still was by Margaret Thatcher, won that vote very distinctly, but it was a motion of confidence. There are strict rules about when it is and when it is not.
"That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government."-[ Official Report, 22 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 439.]
The debate was led by Neil Kinnock, now Lord Kinnock, and the motion was defeated by 367 votes to 247. The hon. Lady makes my point for me. The rules have been very nebulous except where the words are very clear on the Order Paper. Very often, the words on the Order Paper have not been clear.
Mrs Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I made a mistake when I talked about a "strict rule". I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. The point is that there are rules and there are conventions, but they are not sufficiently clear, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman on this point.
Clearly, conventions have operated in this House, but they have wandered with the age. There was a period when there were frequent motions of no confidence and the Opposition thought that it was a good way in which to transact business. For the past 15 years or so, we have not had motions of no confidence, largely because the Government have enjoyed fairly large majorities. Another reason, I suspect, is that there is nothing worse than losing a motion of no confidence and the Government tend to unite in their confidence in themselves. I will come later to discuss one of the dangers of this nebulous relationship. All too often, as the hon. Member for Stone said, the Prime Minister of the day starts saying, "I really want to get this piece of legislation through. If we don't get this through, there will be a general election and I will have to resign. Effectively, it's a motion of no confidence." All too often, pieces of legislation or votes are carried because of the threat of the no confidence motion. It would be better if one had clarity in statute as to what constituted a motion of no confidence.
There is one exception to that: motions of censure. Obviously, such motions can relate to an individual member of the Government, the Speaker or any Member of the House. Motions of censure against members of the Government can be made in relation to specific actions that they have or have not taken. The hon. Member for Stone referred to the motion of censure on Suez, but there have been others. On occasion, such motions have been treated as motions of confidence, but they should always be treated as such when they are against the Prime Minister.
One could argue that the two motions in 1924 that constituted motions of no confidence fall into a similar category. On 21 January 1924, after the first general election of that year, the Opposition carried an amendment to the Loyal Address, so that it stated:
"Your Majesty's present advisers have not the confidence of this House."-[ Official Report, 21 January 1924; Vol. 169, c. 685.]
To all intents and purposes-as plain as a pikestaff-that was a motion of no confidence. Stanley Baldwin subsequently resigned as Prime Minister, but there was
no general election, and the Labour party took over, assisted by the Liberals, in the first minority Government. One day-who knows?-that may come to pass again. I warn Conservative colleagues that that arrangement did not last very long. On 8 October 1924, the specific censure motion on the Prime Minister's refusal to continue a petition against a journal was not carried, but the appointment of a Select Committee was carried. The Prime Minister determined that that was a matter of confidence and decided to resign, and we all know the result.
Mr Cash: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely interesting case. He has demonstrated that motions of confidence come in all shapes and sizes-the essence of such motions is whether the House of Commons has lost confidence in the Government-but the question whether the courts will get their hands on such matters is the big issue, and that troubles me. However interesting it may be to go through the various facets of this group of amendments, if we are to have a vote on the courts, we must get on to the next group of amendments, because we need to debate that.
Chris Bryant: I very much hope that we do. There are two elements to why this debate matters: first, the role of the Speaker, and secondly, the role of the courts, which is what the hon. Gentleman wants to debate.
Contrary to what the Minister said, the Opposition rather than the Prime Minister often determine what is and is not a motion of confidence. As we heard, the Prime Minister could decide that the question whether the House adjourns is a matter of confidence, or he or she could refer to minor legislation as such. However, the Opposition can not only table a motion of no confidence, but declare that another matter is a matter of confidence. Effectively, they can demand that the Prime Minister address such a matter personally.
On 15 January 1972, Second Reading of the European Communities Act 1972, which I suspect the hon. Member for Stone knows well, was declared by the then Prime Minister to be a matter of confidence. He said that if he lost, there would be a general election. Undoubtedly, some decided to support him for that very reason.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Surely this debate about votes of no confidence is really all about the exercise of the Prime Minister's power, because as the hon. Gentleman has just implied, it is the Prime Minister who decides whether we will have a general election. When Ted Heath used that threat in 1972, he clearly did so quite deliberately, in order to force his side to vote in favour of joining the European Union, and it was his decision whether there would be a general election. Given that, I cannot really see why the hon. Gentleman is going in the direction that he is.
Because the legislation is changing that provision in two regards, one of which is the subject of an amendment in this group. The Government-I think rightly-want to say that after a motion of no confidence, there could be two weeks during which the House could, if it wanted, pass a motion of confidence in either the same Government, presumably, or another Government, with either the same Prime Minister or a different Prime Minister, with a different set of ministerial colleagues. That is a change from the situation thus far. There are those who want to remove that two-week
element from the Bill. We on the Labour Benches disagree with them, so we will not be supporting that amendment.
There were two occasions, on 11 March 1976 and 20 July 1977, when the motion "That this House do now adjourn" was declared by the then Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition to be a motion of no confidence, first by Harold Wilson and then by Mrs Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher. On occasion, the mere involvement of the Prime Minister, by turning up at the Dispatch Box to defend a particular motion or piece of legislation, has effectively turned it into a motion of confidence, and that has transpired during the debate. As we are abolishing the Prime Minister's right to dissolve Parliament and placing that right in the hands of Parliament-we are putting that in statute-it would be better to state in the Bill, in clear language, precisely what constitutes a motion of no confidence, so that there can be no doubt.
I say that for several reasons. First, it would remove the Prime Minister's power to force legislation through by calling it a matter of confidence. Perhaps Members on the Government Benches have not got used to this yet, but when we were in government, it was a fairly common occurrence whenever there was a difficult piece of legislation-whether on trade unions, the war in Iraq or whatever-for the Prime Minister to say, not necessarily in public but certainly in private, that it was a matter of confidence. That has led to some bad legislation in the past, which was certainly not helpful to us, and I am sure that there will be plenty of moments like that coming along for Government Members.
Mark Durkan: Just to reinforce the hon. Gentleman's argument, a case in point when legislation was forced through with the threat that it would be treated as a confidence issue was the Counter-Terrorism Bill allowing for 42-day detention. The then Prime Minister made it clear in his pleadings to me that it would be treated as a confidence motion. He said, "Do you want an election? If you turn up and vote against, there will be an election." He tried threatening me and his Back-Bench colleagues with an election, precisely abusing the notion of a confidence motion, which is why amendment 25, which the hon. Gentleman has tabled, is so good.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. He is absolutely right. However, I must confess to the Committee that Prime Ministers rarely said that to me personally, because I was too ludicrously loyal. Almost before the Prime Minister had even thought that a vote might be difficult, I had already decided I would be supportive. In fact, I rarely got to see the Prime Minister for that very reason. I would therefore advise Government Members that if they want to see the Prime Minister on a regular basis, they should start wondering whether they will support Government provisions. However, the serious point is that the freedom of individual Back Benchers will be tethered, because they will constantly be persuaded by the argument, "You don't want a general election, do you? You must support this piece of legislation, because otherwise I'm going to call it a motion of no confidence."
The second reason touches on an important element, on which the Minister got into difficult waters-I know that he does not think that he did, but others of us do, and I think that the courts will feel that too. He said
that it would be for the Speaker to decide and to announce before any debate what counts as a motion of confidence or, presumably, a motion of no confidence. A minor point is whether a motion of confidence will count as a motion of no confidence if it is not carried. In the past it has, but I am not sure whether the Government intend that.
It would be wholly inappropriate for the Chair to say at the beginning of, for example, a Budget debate that if the House does not carry the Budget and if the Finance Bill falls on Second Reading or Third Reading that would be a motion of confidence in the Government, so he would issue a certificate. The Minister was sighing but is now smiling, and we prefer the smiling. I accept that in that example I am imagining what might happen, but I am more concerned what would happen if hon. Members chose to ask the Speaker whether a motion of censure counted as a motion of confidence. As I understand it, the Minister is saying that the Speaker would be required to adjudicate on whether it was a motion of no confidence. That would be wholly inappropriate, particularly at a time of political uncertainty and high drama, because the Speaker would lose his or her impartiality and be drawn into the political mêlée, and that would be wrong.
Amendment 5 would remove the two-week provision for a new Government to be formed on the basis of a confidence motion. We may have to return to some of these issues on Report, and I would be grateful if the Minister will clarify whether, if that second motion fell, there could then be a subsequent two weeks. We quite like the provision for two weeks-it seems sensible if an alternative coalition or Government could be formed. I see some hon. Members casting a wry glance as though I am eyeing up the Liberal Democrats. We are not getting on very well with the Liberal Democrats at the moment, so I do not think he needs to worry about that, but obviously if the offer is on the table, we will take it.
Amendment 22 is a minor one, and I would be interested in the Government's view. The clause refers to the provision of 14 days being allowed after a motion of no confidence. We have suggested that it should be 10 working days simply because all other references in the Bill are to working days. I suppose it is possible that the period could coincide with a royal wedding, a day of thanksgiving, a bank holiday, Easter or Christmas, and it would seem to be sensible to specify working days instead of days.
However, we have not moved to the suggestion in other Committees of 10 sitting days, because if the House were adjourned, there would be a specific problem. I hope that the Minister will say what he thinks should happen if the House had been adjourned for a recess-for example, the day after a motion of no confidence. Should there be a requirement for the Government to bring the House back, and should there be a specific provision for the Speaker to be able to require the House to be recalled within the two weeks? We will come to Prorogation later.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green):
On a point of order, Mr Amess. Have you have received any indication from the Home Secretary that she might be coming to the House tonight to make a statement on
whether she believes that police tactics outside the House are proportionate? Many hundreds of students and schoolchildren have been kettled for more than four hours and, according to the police, will be out there for several more hours in the freezing cold. Whatever one thinks about the student protest, holding people against their will for no reason is neither proportionate nor effective.
I have commented on amendment 22, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond. Amendment 36 would provide extra time, if the House were already adjourned or prorogued, for the House to come up with a new motion of confidence. In some ways, this mirrors quite a lot of existing legislation relating to Dissolution and Prorogation and to the use of extraordinary powers. For instance, if the reserve forces were to be summoned when the House was adjourned or prorogued, there is a special power for Parliament to be called back early. The amendment seems sensible, and I hope that the Minister will respond to these points before we decide whether we want to vote on it.
Amendment 37 insists that the Prime Minister should resign within seven days of a motion of no confidence being passed. Again, I hope that the Minister will give the Committee his views on this, because this was an element of the Conservative manifesto in the general election. We might therefore want to return to the matter on Report. What does he understand would happen to the Prime Minister if a motion of no confidence in him personally, as opposed to a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government, were carried? What does he think would happen if a motion of no confidence just in the Government were carried?
"This House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government".
"This House has no confidence in the Prime Minister".
That obviously precludes any of the other elements. I think it would be clearer if we set down in statute the stipulation that the section would kick in only in those two instances, as set out in the Bill, and that only in those circumstances would the Speaker be able to issue a certificate.
I understand that some hon. Members think that there should be great leniency and that it should be entirely up to the Prime Minister to determine whether there is a motion of no confidence. I believe that, especially as we move towards a system in which the Government assert that the Prime Minister is relinquishing the power to dissolve Parliament himself, it makes far more sense to make these matters clear in the Bill, rather than dragging the Speaker into what is and is not a motion of no confidence.
Thomas Docherty: It might help the House to know that the Scottish Parliament has very specific rules about what counts as a motion of no confidence in the Government. For example, failing to get a Budget through does not count, as we saw just two years ago when the Scottish National party Government could not get their Budget through on the first attempt.
Chris Bryant: I think my hon. Friend normally thinks of himself as a Thomas, rather than a Tommy, Mr Amess. He is similar to Tommy McAvoy, but not quite the same. I think he will take that as a compliment, but I am not entirely sure. He will doubtless tell me later. He is absolutely right about the Scottish Parliament.
The whole thrust of my argument is that, in the past, the House has for the most part proceeded on the basis of gentleman's agreements and of conventions that are not written down anywhere, and on the basis that "Erskine May" is a more important bible than statute law in relation to these matters. However, we are now fixing the length of our Parliaments and moving towards determining many other elements of our constitutional settlement in statute law, and it is vital that we should be clear about what we mean by a motion of no confidence.
I fully accept that other Members might want to include certain other categories. The one other aspect that might be considered always to be a motion of no confidence-so it should perhaps be included-is the acceptance of an amendment to the Loyal Address after a general election. The Bill does not provide for circumstances in which a new Government are formed by a motion of confidence, although that happens elsewhere-in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, for example, where the First Ministers are appointed by a vote.
Thomas Docherty: For further clarification, it is not only the First Minister but each of the Ministers that he or she subsequently appoints who require a formal vote in the Scottish Parliament. Some hon. and right hon. Gentlemen might find that to be a useful mechanism.
Chris Bryant: You would rule me out of order, Mr Amess, if I debated whether there should be confirmation hearings for all Ministers and related matters. I understand why some might say that my amendment could be improved upon by including a third category of no confidence motion-one relating to the tabling of an amendment to the Loyal Address at the beginning of a new Parliament. To those who think that way, I say that it would be better to carry the amendment today so that we improve the legislation and then move further forward to suggest amendments to amplify that provision on Report.
Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con):
This is my first opportunity to speak on the Bill. Before I deal with the specific clause and amendments, I want to say
that I generally support the idea of having fixed-term Parliaments because it will promote the basic concept of electoral fairness, end some of the deal-making and lack of scrutiny we have seen inherent in the wash-up procedures, improve electoral planning for the Electoral Commission and avoid some of the return to hype and confusion that we saw dominate the last three years of the previous Parliament.
In one area, however, I have to reserve my unequivocal support. That concerns the consequences of a successful vote of no confidence in a Government. It must be right for such votes to continue to be decided by a simple majority. If a Government cannot command the support of a simple majority of elected representatives, they should fall. I welcome the Government's withdrawal of the qualified majority provision that was previously under consideration. However, clause 2(2)(b) sets out a novel and rather anomalous parliamentary procedure.
Reference has been made to this country's practice, which is that a successful mid-term vote of no confidence leads to an immediate election. In the last century, there were just two examples of that, both of which led to the announcement of Dissolution the following day. The exception-I stand to be corrected if I am wrong-was after the election of December 1923, which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned. A minority Conservative Government led by Stanley Baldwin switched to a minority Labour Government led by Ramsay MacDonald. However, that took place immediately after an election, so it arguably reflected rather than ignored the shifting will of the electorate.
Practice therefore shows that this convention is reasonably clear, yet clause 2(2)(b) undoes it. It provides a window of up to 14 days after a no confidence vote before a general election must be called. I stand to be corrected again and ask the Minister for some clarification, but the aim appears to be to allow the formation of an alternative Government without an election. The mechanism appears almost explicitly designed to facilitate a third party leaving a coalition in order to form an entirely new Government of an entirely different character-mid-term and without seeking a democratic mandate for such a profound change. I see no sound reason or any good justification for such an inherently undemocratic device-even one formulated in permissive terms. I see only the risk of this clause being used for political expediency, sidestepping the democratic process.
It might be said that the existing arrangements already allow for this to happen, but they do not encourage it and they do not institutionalise it. At best, this provision is unnecessary; at worst, it is undemocratic. I would therefore be grateful for some further explanation and clarification from Ministers of the explicit purpose of this window- and, indeed, of why it is necessary at all.
Mrs Laing: Amendments 36 and 37 were also submitted by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I am pleased to say that, unlike the last group of amendments, these are amendments with which I agree. I apologise again on behalf of the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who would have liked to be here to speak on the Committee's behalf. I am pleased that other Select Committee members are present, along with other hon. Members who have supported the amendments.
The purpose of amendments 36 and 37 is to improve the Bill and help the Government to clarify a very important issue. There cannot be anything more important than knowing when the House is facing a motion of confidence in the Government and when it is not. This is not a matter that ought to be left open to speculation. When we face a confidence motion we need to know that it is a confidence motion, and-as has been said by Members on both sides of the Committee-it should not be used by the Whips as a tool to coerce people to vote for a particular issue lest their Government fall if the vote be lost. A motion of confidence is not a tool of the Whips; it is a very important convention of our constitution.
"the requirement that the House would need to show that it had confidence in any alternative government within fourteen days to avoid an early general election could be made impossible if the Government ensured that the House was adjourned or prorogued for any substantial length of time."
The amendment would prevent the incumbent Government from using the prerogative power of prorogation to frustrate the formation of an alternative Government, which they could do under the Bill as it is currently drafted. At present, the Government could get around the provisions in clause 2 by simply proroguing Parliament.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. This is one of my biggest worries. Ministers may say that the Prime Minister would never do that-that he or she could not possibly choose to use such an evil power-but the truth is that the power to prorogue lies completely, utterly and solely with the Government. I think it important for us to remove that power from Government and put it in the hands of the House, just as the power to adjourn the House for recesses lies with the House.
Mrs Laing: Indeed, and that power has been used by the Government many times. I have noticed over the past 13 years that there have been very long recesses when it suited the last Government for the House of Commons not to be sitting and able to hold them to account. It is within the power of the Government to do that, and although I have accused the last Labour Government of behaving in a way that could be described as dishonourable in that respect, I would be the first to say that other Governments have been able to use the power in the same way.
I concede that point to the hon. Gentleman. It was right to introduce September sittings. When I was a new Member, serious events were occurring in Northern Ireland in, I think, 1998 and the House was recalled in September. We flew in from all over the world-well, from Millport and similar places. We all flew back from far-flung places, even Essex. It was realised that having
a very long summer recess means the Government are not being held to account and that this House is not the forum and focus for national debate that it should be.
However, I put it to Members that there is an even worse possible outcome from these proposed measures. I know the current Government under the current leadership of the current Prime Minister and the Minister who is currently sitting on the Front Bench would never behave in a dishonourable fashion, but that is not the point. The point is that legislation passed by this House should make sure that no Government can ever use their prerogative power of prorogation-I have got better at saying such tongue-twisters during the day-to frustrate the formation of an alternative Government.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Lady is right again, and she is very good at saying the "prerogative power of prorogation". The additional power the Government currently have is the power to decide whether a motion gains precedence on the Order Paper or not. One of the difficulties with the current draft of the Bill is that there is no provision to ensure that a prospective new Prime Minister trying to form a Government would be able to table a motion of confidence.
Mrs Laing: Yes, the shadow Minister is correct. I am sure the Minister will have very good responses to these questions when he replies, but it is important that the House addresses them, and that is why the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has tabled these amendments as a result of its pre-legislative scrutiny report.
Amendment 37 reflects the Committee's findings that the Bill still leaves to unwritten convention the requirement that a Government should resign if they lose the confidence of the House. The Deputy Prime Minister said to the House in July this year that the Bill would
"strengthen the power of this House to throw out a Government through a motion of no confidence"-[ Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 32.]
However, although that might have been the Deputy Prime Minister's intention, the Bill does not do that. Amendment 37 would require the Prime Minister to resign within seven days of a motion of no confidence being passed, and to advise the Queen to appoint a new Prime Minister who had the best chance of securing the House's confidence.
The Government's response to the Committee's report appears to show that they do not intend that an incumbent Government faced with a successful vote of no confidence should be required to resign. The response states:
"A Government is able now, and would be able under the Bill, to remain in office after a no confidence motion and contest a general election."
That is a very serious state of affairs. The Committee carefully examined the consequences of the Bill before putting that in its report, but the fact is that the Bill will allow a Government to remain in office after a no confidence motion and to contest a general election.
That raises a number of constitutional questions, and I wish to put four to the Minister. First, do the Government intend that the incumbent Government should be able
to force an early general election following a vote of no confidence even where an alternative Government with a potential majority in the House are clearly waiting in the wings?
My second question relates to a matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) referred to: have the Government considered that an incumbent Government might engineer a vote of no confidence in themselves, requiring only a simple majority, and then simply sit it out for two weeks to force an early general election? Once again, although I have every confidence that the current Government and the Minister at the Dispatch Box would not behaviour dishonourably, the Bill gives a future Government the power to do that.
As I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, some Members of the Canadian Parliament raised this issue at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference held here last week. There is a constitutional difficulty in Canada at the moment, because more than one vote of confidence has been held at the instigation of the Government. My hon. Friend said that he is not particularly interested in examples from other countries, and I agree that just because something happens in Canada does not mean that it will happen here. However, Canada's constitution and Government are constructed similarly to ours and we ought to learn lessons or at least look at the warning signs from a place whose legislature is so similar.
Thirdly, have the Government considered that an incumbent Prime Minister whose party has narrowly lost a general election might refuse to resign and instead choose to face the House of Commons, as Stanley Baldwin did in January 1924-the shadow Minister referred to that-and as the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) could, in theory, have done this May? A vote of no confidence in those circumstances would give the incumbent Prime Minister the choice of either resigning or forcing another general election.
An incumbent Prime Minister would not be able to exercise that choice at the moment, because the convention is that the monarch, under her existing prerogative powers, would almost certainly not agree to dissolve Parliament so soon after an election where there was a viable alternative Government. Nevertheless, the Bill, as drafted, would leave the question open, and it is our duty as a Parliament not to put the monarch under pressure to make a decision; we should never have a situation where the monarch has to exercise her prerogative power in order to keep the incumbent Prime Minister in line, as it were.
"Where the House of Commons passes a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government, the Prime Minister shall tender his resignation to Her Majesty within a period of seven days of the motion being passed."
The amendment is quite simple and, again, is not intended to run a coach and horses through the Bill-far from it. As I have said on many occasions, I support the Bill and I want it to go through, because it is necessary for the stability of the Government and of the coalition at a time when we need stability. What the Select Committee is trying to do through these amendments is simply assist the Government to improve the Bill.
My final question to the Minister is on how the Bill strengthens the power of the House to throw out a Government by a motion of no confidence. The Select Committee considered that question as carefully as we could in the time given for pre-legislative scrutiny and there is a general opinion that the Bill does not strengthen the power of the House to throw out a Government on a motion of no confidence. I would argue, however, that the House has at present a pretty good power that it can exercise to throw out a Government on a motion of no confidence. I do not believe that the Bill strengthens that position and the Deputy Prime Minister ought not to say that it does when it does not.
Mark Durkan: With the exception of amendment 5, the amendments basically try to make the Bill more complete and more cogent by ensuring that there is less ambiguity about convention. That is particularly the case with amendment 25, which would remove from the Prime Minister and the Whips the ability to whisper confidence and no confidence in people's ears, to play the question like a joker that is wild and to use it in relation to any issue that is uncomfortable for the Government or on which Back Benchers are exercising their consciences and discretion.
I gave the example in an intervention earlier of the way in which that process was used with the then Counter-Terrorism Bill. Labour MPs who had said that they would vote in good conscience against 42-day detention were prevailed on with the threat of its being a matter of confidence or no confidence. The then Prime Minister said to me that he would not even table a motion of no confidence if he lost that vote, but that he would deem it to be a vote of no confidence and would go straight away. In the first conversation, he said that the vote would have been followed by a no confidence motion but later on, he said that he would not even bother with a no confidence motion and would go straight to an election. I know that that threat brought some Back Benchers into line and they voted against their consciences and against their stated intentions.
If we are serious about altering the balance of the powers in the hands of the Executive and the Whips, we should support amendment 25, which states that a no confidence motion for the purposes of the Bill must explicitly be a no confidence motion in either the Prime Minister or the Government. Making it clear and explicit in those terms removes the ambiguity and bullying element and restores clarity.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) has made strong arguments for amendments 36 and 37. They would remove possible ambiguity and abuse as well as a lot of confusion and speculation that might arise about otherwise serious circumstances. I commend all those amendments to the Committee.
Another virtue of amendment 25 is that it would go some way to mitigating many of the concerns about the Speaker's certificate and the challenges and questions that might be raised about it, which are legitimately the subject of subsequent amendments. Because I care for the issues raised by those subsequent amendments, I would make the point that amendment 25 is relevant in containing the problems with the Speaker's certificate that they aim to address.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab):
As a new Member, I think that many of the public will be quite puzzled by some of the matters that are being discussed
and will probably be quite surprised that there was such a lack of clarity about what a matter of confidence is. Given that the question of confidence in a Government is fundamental, as was expressed eloquently earlier by many speakers, it is very important that we get this right.
I have not been through some of the experiences that others clearly have, but I have heard them talk about them and it seems wrong that such a question should be used as a sword of Damocles over Members who might have legitimate views about a particular part of a policy-even if it is the policy of a Government whom they support. Had I been a Member of the previous Parliament, I am sure that detention would have been an issue on which I would not have supported the Government's position. So I can see exactly why it is right to have a definition.
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